Monday, July 9, 2012

Tolkien: Great inspiration - hard DM

We're probably all pretty clear on the debt D&D owes to Professor Tolkien.(which is possibly not as much as people think). From the available classes and races to many of the classic monsters - even the name of the game.

Fighters, Magic-Users, Thieves, Dwarves, Elves,'ve got yourself a Fellowship right there.

Dragons (Smaug, and others), Gnomes (Noldor - though their D&D origins are more classical), Goblins, Orcs, Stone Giants, Treants (Ents), Trolls (though the description and regeneration were taken from another literary source), Werebears (Beorn), Wights (of the barrows), Worgs, Wraiths (Nazgul)...and more introduced later, such as the Ettin (though those of Norse myth and Narnia are more likely a source) and the Balor demon (Balrog). Not to mention my suspicion that Shelob helped inspire Lolth - Demon Queen of Spiders.

Finally, Middle-earth has some classic dungeons in the goblin realm under the Misty Mountains, the dwarf halls of the Lonely Mountain, and the Mines of Moria. And where is there a more classic version of the D&D dragon lying upon a great hoard of treasure and appreciating flattery than Smaug?


Would I want to run a character in Tolkien's game of There and Back Again? Could I deal with three giant trolls in my very first encounter as a fledgling first-level character? Maybe - with help from a high-level NPC Magic-User, or a dozen dwarves (imagine how long THOSE combat sessions took). As the likely player of the hapless Thief, I wouldn't have expected a magic talking wallet. But, could you imagine how different the dynamic would be if Gary's trolls turned to stone in the sun like J.R.R's? Regeneration is a real bastard. We can thank Poul Anderson for that one.

DM Tolkien seemed to have a fondness for giants and humanoids in his game. Stone giants hurling boulders to push the party into seeking shelter in a cave? Nice. Waiting until everyone is asleep before taking advantage of that undiscovered secret door down to "Goblin Town" is a cruel masterstroke. A simply ludicrous number of goblins may seem a bit overbalanced - but we still have our NPC Magic-User to bail us out. A bit too much DM Fiat? Perhaps.

And how did our DM Professor handle splitting up the party? Like a pro. Riddles in the dark with one of the greatest fantasy villains of all time. I doff my chapeau to the master. In the meantime, keep the rest of the party occupied with fleeing and fighting for their lives. Though we lose most of our stuff and get no treasure from the goblins, the DM gives one lucky PC possibly the greatest artifact in the land. With this Ring, we get a template for artifacts to last us through many editions of the game. Good and bad in unequal measure - with a grander purpose, a tendency to come and go at unexpected moments,  and only one way to destroy the thing. Another classic game mechanic.

We rejoin the party to threaten them with goblins and wargs. Metric tons of goblins and wargs. Lucky our NPC magic-user knows some fire magic and has giant eagles for pals. Yes - another D&D monster possibly borrowed from Middle-earth.

Did I mention all the riding and walking? Days? Weeks? Even before the journey of the Fellowship, we had an insane amount of hiking to do. A lot of my players wouldn't have taken it well. "Do we have to roleplay the hiking?" But then, a lot of my players would've jumped Beorn right when they started to hear growling from the bushes.

DM Tolkien's NPCs would've made a far better adventuring party. Gandalf, Beorn, Bombadil, Elrond, and Galadriel would be taking care of business from the Shire to Cirith Ungol. What hobbit, dwarf, or man could hope to come close? But, DM Tolkien puts our PC heroes up against wights (not skeletons or zombies), swarms of giant spiders, an entire elven kingdom, and a friggin' ancient red dragon! And let's not even get into the ringwraiths, balrog, armies and armies of orcs and goblins, a spider-shaped horror from the ancient world that made gods nervous, and a demigod from the dawn of time. Epic. No need to mess around with giant rats and green slime in Tolkien's campaign - we'll get you toe-to-toe with the Witch King of Angmar in no time!

My poor hobbit thief would have broken down and cried like a little girl before ever reaching Mirkwood.


  1. I have a feeling that Bilbo, especially, and perhaps even Frodo, got off lightly.

    Checking on the Mentzer Expert Wilderness Encounter tables I make Bilbo's party have an encounter with 'Mules' on the evening of Day 4 (by which time they may have reached Bree). On the following day I rolled another encounter, which would be with Gnolls if they were west of Bree or Stone Giants if they were East. On Day 6, I have a daytime encounter with Goblins and a night-time encounter with Troglodytes. No more random encounters before the end of day 13, which is the absolute minimum I figure to reach the Trolls. At 1 encounter every 3 days (average) there may be another if the Trolls were on the 16th night (which is quite feasible).

    As for Frodo, an attack by Tiger Beetles on the first night of camping in the woods on the edge of the Green Hill Country is indicated by my rolls. Tolkien gives the party two wandering encounters next day - one with Wraiths on horses (now that's mean) and one with Elves (which is nice). The following day there's a fixed encounter with Farmer Maggot (good CHA bonus from Frodo probably gets them out of a potentially sticky situation) before another wandering Black Rider encounter in the evening (or is that only in the film? I forget).

    The next day, apart from the fixed encounter with the Treant, and the ?semi-random area effect of Bombadil (6+d6 rounds after being attacked by Old Man Willow?), I also rolled another Tiger-Beetle attack. No rolls for the time in Bombadil's house, then on day 6 (the Barrow Downs) in addition to the fixed encounter with the Wights I also had a wandering Treant (could go either way). The encounter with the Wights ends with Bombadil's area effect again (6+d6 hours, the Wights are further from Bombadil's house), and the party meets an NPC party (Lawful, luckily) before arriving in Bree that evening.

    My feeling is that probably Pippin is dead by the end of the first day. Possibly 2 Hobbits down by the time the remaining pair is trapped by Old Man Willow.

  2. I haven't read much of Tolkien, just The Hobbit and Book 1 of LOTR - i.e. the first half of Fellowship - but I had an "a-ha" moment as I read the latter. For over a year, I had tried to figure out what purpose gnomes served as a PC race and why they were there in the fashion that they were... and then I got to Tom Bombadil.

    Long beard? Shorter than Men, but taller than Hobbits? Use of mostly non-tangible magic? He's the original gnome illusionist!